The Two Loves of Sophie Strom by Sam Taylor review – a sliding doors tale of survival | Fiction

‘WIs this where they all come from, Jens? All those Nazis …” So 18-year-old Max Spiegelmann wonders to his best friend Jens Arnstein as they prepare to leave Austria for Switzerland. It’s 1938 and Nazi Germany has just annexed Austria into the German Reich. The two boys – both Jews – struggle to understand the actions of their countrymen, seemingly so happy with the new order and the resulting persecution of the Jewish population. “Have they always been like this? Have they always hated us? Even when they were smiling and giving us change and wishing us a good evening?”

Sophie Strom’s Two Loves vividly and fascinatingly provides the answer in at least one case: that of Max himself. And it depends on little more than chance. One night in 1933, as people whisper darkly about “those new laws in Germany” and brownshirts roam the streets outside, Max dreams of his house burning with his parents inside. He wakes up to smoke and flames, but manages to get himself and his parents out in time. At this point, his life – and the narrative – splits in two: in one, Max survives with his parents, flees to Paris and joins the French Resistance, and in the other, he is orphaned, changes his name to Hans, and joins the Nazi Party .

Thus we are presented with two stories of what might have been. They continue in sequence as the two boys, and later young men, witness their alter ego’s life in their dreams and see the effects of chance and choice blossom in different directions. It’s an intriguing premise, and one that allows for a vivid depiction of hypocrisy, fakery, and self-preservation: the pretty girl who rejects you in one life may pursue you in another; the pompous professor who indulges can just as easily defer. All that is needed is the perception of power. These side-by-side contrasts are stark and often moving, especially in the early schoolyard scenes, but they mean we’re dealing with two very similar (often mirrored) narratives; and thus quite a few repetitions.

Since this is Vienna in the 1930s, the explanation for Max/Hans’ dreams lies in the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung. Somewhat cursorily, the reader is informed of “Jung’s concept of individuation” that “we cannot be fully human until this shadow, this inner darkness, is brought into the light of consciousness.” Max dives into Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (“It was fascinating, but his conclusions left him confused”). He writes a letter to the great man; receives a dismissive response. “Wish-granting” and “punishment dreams” are mentioned, but these explanations are left hanging. Hans’ supposed tumultuous “shadow” life is woefully underexplored; he is little more than a helpful narrative and sometimes a guardian angel.

In both versions, Max/Hans becomes attached early on to Sophie, a beautiful gray-eyed girl. They are associated with music and literature. Whatever happens, their paths cross and intersect. Nazis or not, they fall deeply in love. “Wow,” Jens said sarcastically, “like you’re destined to find each other or something. Lovers of a star!” Indeed, they spend a lot of time on balconies looking at the stars, or “lying side by side in parks and talking about books”. There’s a certain banter in all of this – and the prose definitely takes on a more stellar quality at such times – but there’s also considerable charm and energy. It’s hard not to gloat as Max and Hans each woo their version of Sophie from her insufferable co-worker husband.

It’s a shame that for all the dream talk and psychoanalytic embellishments, we never get much below the surface – the promise of insight hinted at in the premise is ignored in favor of plot. Hans remains a slightly opaque figure; not a committed Nazi, but not too upset by what he sees and does. He’s little more than Max in a Nazi suit. If the two sides of Max Spiegelman, the two loves of Sophie Strom, are almost identical, why should we care where they come from?

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The Two Loves of Sophie Strom by Sam Taylor is published by Faber (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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